Review of How to Raise a Reader by Elaine McEwan
As someone who teaches at the college level, I’m not sure whether the number one academic problem with college students today is illiteracy, laziness, or both. It may even be that the two are really different sides of the same coin—I just don’t know enough about what goes on in primary and secondary education to be able to say for sure. What I do know is that far too many college freshmen are functionally illiterate (not, thankfully, either a majority or even a large minority, but still too many). I also know that if we don’t do a better job of encouraging children to learn how to read long before they turn eighteen, we might as well write off any kind of hope for the future. To that end, Elaine McEwan has written a useful little book called How to Raise a Reader.
Okay, to be fair, the public policy/higher-ed argument is mine alone. McEwan’s purpose in wanting to raise a reader is much more basic: it is good for the child. Specifically, reading has to do with virtue, knowledge, and delight. In terms of virtue, being involved in teaching a child how to read is part of the virtue of being a parent, as well as part of the child’s virtue in becoming educated. Likewise, reading gives children independent access to knowledge and a measure of freedom that the illiterate can never truly experience. And of course, reading can be delightful. Well-crafted writing (whether fiction or not hardly matters) is a wonder accessible first-hand only to those who can read. Though McEwan doesn’t go so far as all these, I’m increasingly willing to say that under normal circumstances we sin against our children when we deny them in this area. If nothing else we need to remember that the primary way God has chosen to reveal Himself to the world is through the written word of the Scriptures. Again, that’s not McEwan’s point—for more on that check out Tony Reinke’s book Lit (reviewed here).
And here’s the necessary disclaimer: I’ve never raised a reader. Despite my best efforts, my two-month-old has not yet picked up a book and read on his own. And yes, I do live with the disappointment of this every day. So take everything I say about this book (or any parenting book) with a shaker of salt.
With that said, How to Raise a Reader looks to be an excellent aid in, well, raising a reader. It also happens to be a quick read itself, so if you’re a busy parent don’t be intimidated. The bulk of the book is made up of lists of book recommendations and short vignettes about children learning to read, while only a small portion provides specific guidance on teaching children to read. But this small portion is packed with excellent advice and useful suggestions covering everything from how to determine whether or not the public schools are effectively helping kids read (and how we can help out if they’re not—McEwan is very pro-public school) to how to build a culture of reading in the home even during the newborn stage.
In case you’re wondering, one of the necessary parts of raising a reader when said reader is a newborn is reading aloud to them regularly (you’ll have to read McEwan’s book to get the rest of her advice). I’ll confess that this is a problem for me. I absolutely hate being read to and reading aloud alike. And this isn’t really a new thing, as long as I can remember I have always preferred reading at my own pace to having to listen to someone else’s or slow down enough to read out loud to someone else. No doubt this is a result of the sin of impatience on my part, and one that I will now have to work on thanks to McEwan’s book. [sigh]
Even though it annoyingly revealed my own sin, How to Raise a Reader is nevertheless an excellent book that will be interesting and useful to parents and teachers alike.
Dr. Coyle Neal is an Assistant Professor of Political Science.